Camping Mueller State Park

Alyssa Liddick and Zach Hankins of Colorado Springs, Colol, set up their tent at Mueller State Park on May 14, 2020, while Lorelei Ponce, 9, sitting, and Karmen Ponce, 5, play in the background.

Talk about a heated argument.

I just don’t seem to get along with stoves. I’ve been “burned” by backpacking stoves enough times that I now always take a back-up. My trusty, 13-year-old car-camping, two burner finally sputtered and died this month. It was the same weekend the poles of our 10-year tent cracked. I choose to blame COVID.

Nnormally buying a new tent and new camp stove would be a joyful venture. But not this year. Tents, kayaks, bikes, binoculars and recreational vehicles are flying off shelves and RV lots. People buying these “toys” are immediately using them.

If you’ve ventured to one of your favorite ”secret spots” in the mountains lately, I’m guessing you had company. “Dispersed camping” resembles a reenactment of Woodstock in many of Colorado’s National Forests.

Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreational Alliance recently held a Leadership Summit focusing on the resiliency of some of the wild places in our region. Land managers shared their concerns, and rightly so. One said the large number of users has resembled a 4th of July weekend — every single weekend.

For Colorado State Parks, it’s brought an increase in revenue. When state campgrounds are full, they’re full. Not so in the National Forest. When their campgrounds are full, people just park down the road and camp wherever they please.

These land managers talked about the thrill of all these first-time campers out with their families, enjoying the wilderness. It’s also a little terrifying with the forests being tinder dry. Inexperienced campers are enjoying campfires but are sometimes leaving them unattended or smoldering when they decamp.

Unaware of the “leave no trace” principles, some campers are leaving the forest strewn with waste. We know local park staffs are seeing an uptick in graffiti and trash. Pike National Forest is 1.1 million acres, with only a handful of full-time and seasonal staff managing a growing list of challenges.

We did buy a new camp stove and tent and left early on a recent Friday for a favorite spot in San Isabel National Forest. A 2-mile stretch of forest road where we might normally see 50 tents and campers along a stream had closer to 200. Such crowds would tempt some people to turn around and leave. But where do you go?

This is the challenge many campers are facing. And with two to three times the normal number of visitors, forest staff are understandably feeling overwhelmed. Wildfires are always a great concern and under current conditions we all need to be more vigilant. Forest Districts may be forced to make tough decisions.

Fires in Western Colorado forced the closure of some 300,000 acres of federal land recently. Should conditions worsen, dispersed camping could be severely limited. While that would make many of us sad, the threat of a catastrophic fire is a much more sobering prospect. Broken stoves and tents can be replaced. When a forest burns, real recovery can take a lifetime.

Davies is executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition.

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